Abide: 2 Samuel 5-7; 11-12; 1 Kings 3; 8; 11
David and Solomon are Israel’s most celebrated kings. They are and were venerated as wise and righteous. They were also known for their wealth and well, their sins. What are we to learn from them in all of their complexity? We’ll explore their lives and what we can take from their stories in this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute and each week we discuss the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are once again joined by Truman Callens, one of our research assistants and an Ancient Near Eastern Studies major here at BYU from Seattle, Washington. After he graduates, plans to attend graduate school to study theology and ancient texts.
Joseph Stuart: Welcome back Truman.
Truman Callens: It’s always good to be here. Thank you.
Joseph Stuart: It is our pleasure to have you here. Now Kristian as usual, Come, Follow Me doesn’t bring in all of the sections that we may cover but the section for Come, Follow Me is Second Samuel 7-5 and 11 through 12, as well as First Kings 3, 8, and 11. What’s going on in this block that analyzes two different books of scripture?
Kristian Heal: So this larger block of Second Samuel 5 through First Kings 11 describes the reign of David and his son Solomon. This glorious period of the United Monarchy is the zenith of the life of ancient Israel, and a period that the rest of Jewish history looks back to with love and longing. Behind this golden age lay the fraught lives of Israel’s two greatest kings. David is an important figure in Jewish and Christian tradition, but he is also an elusive figure. As one commentator observes, “The more I tried to interpret King David, the more elusive, complex and distant he became. Being a father, a warrior, a diplomat, a murderer, a manipulator, a tyrant, a beguiler who is often beguiled. David, as baffling as he is ambiguous, interprets and exposes the fictions of those who meet him. So in other words, reading the story of David is likely to disrupt our own expectations and deepen our own understandings of both David and ourselves. Having a royal house did not solve the succession problem. It just created tension in the Royal House. Once again, our expectations are disrupted. David’s successor does not come from the marriage between David and the daughter of Saul, nor is the kingdom given to Absalom about whom it is said, “No one in all Israel was so admired for his beauty is Absalom. From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. He was without blemish.” The kingdom could not be taken by the rebellion of Absalom all the stratagem with a very handsome Madonia. Rather, it was given to the youngest son, Solomon son of Bathsheba, to whom it was promised by oath. Bathsheba, an adulterous widow bereft of her first child now joins Tamar and Ruth as unexpected mothers to the Royal House of David and ancestors of our Savior Jesus Christ. Her son Solomon, we are told, was loved or favored by the Lord. And it seems that his future was more securely set by these few words of divine approbation than by all the vain attempts of his brothers to obtain the throne.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that Kristian. Truman, Kristian mentioned that David is a disrupting force in the narrative. How does he disrupt our expectations as readers?
Truman Callens: David is certainly a disruptive force and I really liked that angle. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the messianic expectation in these books and surrounding the story of David. A lot of interpretations that I heard growing up that we talked about as a family or in Sunday school growing up, really never sat super well with me because it’s such an intricate story, the story with David and Bathsheba. Often we simplify it down to David sees Bathsheba naked and that’s bad and he does something bad, so don’t look at pornography. That’s kind of what we pull from it.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah. Which may be understating, as he said, not only the complexity, but the many steps in which David takes that ultimately leads to his wicked deeds.
Truman Callens: Oh, exactly. It simplifies it way down. And honestly, I don’t need this story to tell me not to do bad stuff, because that’s kind of built in already, we know that. And this story is actually rather serious. Sometimes we forget that this story results in the death of two innocent people. To say “don’t do bad things” is such a simple interpretation for such an extreme story. And so I really was looking at sort of a messianic expectation to the story. And it’s cool because David up until this point, is really cast as looking like the Messiah. These books were written probably during the exilic period when the messianic the expectation was, was a political and a military Messiah, someone to liberate Israel. And we see that kind of retrospectively cast onto David because he slays Goliath and he defeats the Canaanites and he brings the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel and unites the kingdoms and he’s this great messianic figure. This is an amazing thing. And then we enter chapter 11 and the story of Bathsheba, and things really, really start to change there and things really get messed up.
Joseph Stuart: So how is the challenge in the episode with Bathsheba different from the other challenges that David has faced?
Truman Callens: I think we need to look at the enemies. Who David’s enemies are super important because up until this point, the enemy has always been someone external. It’s been the Canaanites, it’s been other people attacking Israel and David defending. A very person on person conflict. When David is sitting up on his patio or whatever, and he looks down and he sees Bathsheba, the enemy is David himself. The enemy is the natural man within David, which so far we haven’t seen David have to compete with himself at all. This is new for us. This is new for the reader. This is new for David. But I think that’s really cool because in this moment, well, it’s hard to say it’s really cool. It’s cool to see a new angle, a new angle to David. But he falls and he falls fast and he falls hard. Because it’s very quick that David goes and gets fishy but then he tries to trick Uriah and then he ends up killing Uriah. And it’s this moral downfall that is very, very, very fast.
Joseph Stuart: So I think that this is interesting because Jesus Christ is seen not only as our perfect exemplar, but also so far as his actions but that he is without sin. At this point, David can no longer be said or to be viewed as “without sin”. Does that change the way we should think about him as a messianic figure?
Truman Callens: I think it changes the way that people or Jews reading in a captivity or an exilic setting to have seen the Messiah, because they were expecting a political Messiah. But in this moment, we realize David can’t be the Messiah and not only David obviously, but anybody like David can’t be the Messiah, because at this point, who’s going to save David? We need someone to save David at this point. And I think that really brings in the expectation that we need a Messiah not to save us from external enemies, but we need a Messiah that is able to save us from ourselves. I need a Messiah that is going to save me from my own mistakes. And I think that’s really the importance of this story is that we realize that oh, we don’t need a Messiah to save us from someone else, we need a Messiah that can be morally perfect himself, can conquer sin, can master himself so that we can be saved from our own mistakes.
Kristian Heal: A sense in the book of Deuteronomy, when it talks about kings that are part of how this is achieved, is through a king who is not so much concerned about battle in the same way that that David was or not so much concerned about conquest, but concerned about obedience. That they have the law beside them. So there seems to be this setting up of competing expectations even within the stories themselves. David appears to be such an attractive Messiah figure because he conquers 10,000 or conquers 1000s. He’s effective. But I really like the way that we’re seeing David or seeing through David, more of a nuanced picture of what this Messiah needs to look like.
Truman Callens: From the history that we have, or as far as I understand, it didn’t fully sink in to the Jews at the time. Because even during the time of Christ, we knew the large majority of Jews were definitely expecting a political Messiah. And that kind of makes me think about my own expectations of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Because the way I look at it, and I could definitely be wrong, but if the Jews were wrong back then with all the prophecies they had, what makes me right about my expectations now? And it kind of makes me think maybe I should be apprehensive or open to new expectations of what Christ is going to look like when it comes again.
Kristian Heal: I think that’s a really great takeaway from the story and from that whole experience of a messianic expectation leading up to the coming of Christ. Another way to view David is somebody who becomes a model of penitence and a model of someone who relies upon the Savior who did actually come, right? That he seeks. So many of the Psalms attributed to David, are these psalms of penitence, but he’s seeking God’s forgiveness for having done this terrible deed having brought about the death of Uriah, ultimately the death of his and Bathsheba’s firstborn son, but he does become— certainly in Christian tradition. David does become this kind of model of penitence, that he becomes this brokenhearted figure who’s willing to kind of throw himself on the on the Messiah, on Christ as we know him, the Christ who heals, the Christ who forgives. So there’s something interesting going on there with David that perhaps kind of renews his bigger or renews his figure or renews his potential for us as a kind of exemplar. Can we still view David in a positive sense? Or do we have to follow in Section 132? David is sort of cast off as a where he loses all of his blessings. But can we still join the Christian community in seeing something good in this life?
Truman Callens: I think we have to in a way, view David as good in a sense, because in a way David represents all of us. David is like every one of us. None of us can claim moral perfection. So in a way condemning David is condemning every single one of us, condemning myself. So I can’t look at David and judge David too harshly, especially because his attitude certainly does change. It’s a drastic change from the conqueror to the penitent man who is seeking the Lord. And I think that’s a model that we can follow, is that David isn’t the Messiah, he’s not the Messiah, but he’s still someone that we need to follow his example.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that enlightening discussion. David’s son, Solomon, ultimately ascends to the throne of Israel, and he’s known for his wisdom. Even today we say someone who is as wise as Solomon. What can we learn about Solomon’s wisdom? And what does it mean for Latter Day Saints today?
Kristian Heal: Solomon’s such an interesting character, an interesting example of an ideal king. And it is this sort of pressure, natural wisdom, this unusual wisdom, and how do we define that, that sets him apart. His was the kind of wisdom that seems that could only come from God. And we’d learned that this is the case because early in his reign, God appears to him and in a dream and asked what he wanted and Solomon replied, “…an understanding mind to judge your people, to distinguish between good and bad.” So God was pleased with this answer. This was the right answer and blesses him with a wise and discerning mind. His wisdom is described a bit later in 1 Kings chapter 4. It says, “God endowed Solomon with wisdom and discernment in great measure, with understanding as vast as the sands on the seashore.” And so we have this idea and he’s compared to these other sort of wise figures. So what we understand is that Solomon sits within a context in which wisdom is greatly valued. He sits in a context in which there are other people famous for their wisdom. And among all of them, he was the wisest of them all. He could discourse about trees from the cedar of Lebanon, to the hyssop that grows out of the woods. So he understood the natural world around him. He wrote poetry, he wrote aphorisms, Proverbs, He understood nature, discourse about beasts and birds and creeping things. And everyone came to hear. He was like a celebrated and brilliant wise man. And because of this, within the context of the scriptures, several works of the Bible, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon. And several extra canonical books, such as the odes of Solomon, the psalms of Solomon, the testament of Solomon, and the wisdom of Solomon, are all attributed to him because of this famous wisdom that he had. And this is common within the world of biblical literature to attribute books to particularly famous authors.
Joseph Stuart: So Solomon as a wise person we accept from the text, but I think that maybe we could unpack what his wisdom meant. He wasn’t necessarily Master Yoda just dispensing wisdom, but he had different ways of reaching common people, not only the elites of his day.
Kristian Heal: His wisdom seems to be, well it’s useful to contextualize perhaps to think about it in modern terms. Scholars have classified his wisdom as administrative wisdom. There is an ability to sort out things in his kingdom, to get things done, to solve those administrative problems. Encyclopedic and gnomic wisdom, meaning he knew a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. And we all sort of know, we all hopefully have somewhere in our lives like this, who seem to know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, because there are certain minds that are built this way. And he understood riddles is one of those smart people who could do The New York Times crossword puzzle very quickly and we get some examples of that in the text. Today, we might refer to Solomon’s wisdom as intelligence combined with knowledge. This is a very knowledgeable person who’s also very, very smart, what some people refer to as a kind of mental horsepower. We sometimes misunderstand intelligence as the thing that is tested in standardized tests. But intelligence is something broader than that. One psychology textbook defines intelligence as the ability to think, to learn from experience, to solve problems, and to adapt to new situations. Intelligence is a vital part of living. And we all know somebody who just seems to be able to do these things well, who may have actually done very poorly on their standardized tests. So Solomon was blessed with this unusual amount of raw natural intelligence and the capacity to learn and to retain all of the knowledge of his day and put that to use.
Truman Callens: I just think it’s interesting that it was very need-based when Solomon asked for wisdom. It was very based on his immediate needs and what he was going to need as king, that he asked for a discerning heart to judge the people and that it almost displays some sort of anxiety over the job that he’s faced with, that what he kind of into his emotions, that this is what he’s going to need. Like if someone asked me what do I want the most? It’s something that I’ll need. I’m going to ask for something that I need. But I think it’s interesting that he asked for wisdom. And he specifically says, “…a discerning heart to judge the people.” But then he’s blessed, far beyond that with wisdom that goes beyond just judging the people. But it always comes back to his needs and his anxiety over the job that he’s been given.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s really nice to sort of remember that intelligence is not a party trick, or rather a tool that can be put to solving problems. Solomon definitely put this tool of his intelligence to solving problems, although he may well have done party tricks too, as we can see from the kind of riddles that you solve and the fact that people are sort of gathering around, you can’t help get into that kind of a situation. One of the interesting cases, moments in which this capacity for judgment is put to case, is put to the test is when Solomon is presented with the case of the two prostitutes. In brief, this case required Solomon to judge between two young mothers who lived together, two prostitutes, both of whom had children. One mother accuses the mother of accidentally smothering her child in the night and swapping the babies when she discovered what she had done. Solomon worked out that his job wasn’t to sort of find out who the child’s mother was, but which mother gave birth to the child. And that may seem as though there isn’t any sort of a distinction without a difference, but it is one that could be tested. Solomon couldn’t question the child, he couldn’t ask the child who is your mother? Which one of these two women is your mother? But he could test the mothers to see which was a mother to the child. And he offered this terrifying solution: we’re going to cut the child in half and give half to each of you, which quickly exposed this true mother once he identified what the problem was. He proposed a solution which quickly exposed who was the right person in this. But it was a rational solution, even because there is precedent in ancient Jewish legal discussion for dividing property in cases where there’s disputed ownership. We see here Solomon, bringing his intelligence to bear on a seemingly irreconcilable problem. There are no witnesses, the mother can’t bear testimony. It’s a she-said she-said problem. And so almost sort of impossible to resolve. And so the fact that someone resolved this becomes really interesting. Now, one question that we can kind of ask ourselves is, what do we do with a story like this?
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s always the question for me with the Old Testament because the world that the ancient Israelites inhabited is so different from ours in so many ways. They wouldn’t recognize what it would be like to be listening to a podcast, for instance. But we also can’t imagine what it would have been like to have had a king who was expected not only to speak God, but the entire arbiter of his law as well. So I think that asking what we can take from the story, much more than what happens in the story, is crucial throughout the Old Testament.
Kristian Heal: Exactly. This is why I love reading the Old Testament in the company of ancient Christian writers, the kinds of people that I study. And so this is one of those cases where we can bring to our aid, our old friend, Jacob of Sarug, that we’ve heard a couple of times in the course of this podcast, a Christian bishop from sixth-century Mesopotamia. So what did Jacob focus on when he preached this story to his audience? The first thing he did is disrupt the figure of Solomon himself. We’re inclined to focus on Solomon because he is so bright and so central in this story, and turns all of that attention to God. True kingship, true victory, true wealth, true wisdom all belong to God. And so this creates this kind of feeling within us now as an audience of what scholars might call epistemic humility. This capacity to step back and say, I don’t know something, that sense of that we don’t see or know as God sees or knows, and that all gifts ultimately come from God. So the first thing Jacob does in this story is reenthrone God above the narrative, placing God at the top. And in this act of reenthroning God, Jacob asked this question about scripture. Look, he says, “All ages achieved their wealth through your generosity for your wealth is vast, and your treasury overflows, like a spring.” So rather than being in awe of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom, Jacob directs himself and by extension us, towards the true source of wealth and wisdom, reminding us in this process that God wants to give us abundantly from this source.
Joseph Stuart: There’s a danger here though, of reading Jacob of Sarug and thinking the more that I do, the more God will give me, what we might call the prosperity gospel. Is that what he’s getting at here? Or is that an oversimplification?
Kristian Heal: Yeah, you’re right. This is a way that we can sort of think of God’s abundant generosity and think of it in terms of wealth. But Jacob wants to direct our attention to these other treasures, these treasures of knowledge and wisdom that Solomon sought after. And he’s directing us to seek after those things, and telling us that these treasuries are deep, that these treasuries are abundant. And if we were actually sort of being like the unprofitable servant who buries their treasure in the ground, if we’re not asking for more treasure. So he, in the course of this opening of this, of this nominee, laments that he has neglected to take any wealth from God for a long time. And I love this idea of us sort of sitting back and thinking, have I drawn from God’s treasury lately? Have I taken from the wisdom that he’s offering and holding out to us constantly? Have I taken from this abundance that God is constantly offering to us? There’s a lovely way to sort of reframe this question and reframe our relationship with divinity.
Truman Callens: I think it also goes back to what are we going to do with the gifts that were given. What did Solomon do with the wisdom that he was given? Because in the story of the two prostitutes, it didn’t affect his life at all, whatever happened to the baby or happened to the two mothers, it didn’t matter. He could have said anything he wanted and gone on with his life, and it wouldn’t have mattered. But he did what God was wanting him to do, which was to judge righteously. And I think if we seek these gifts, God is willing to give us these gifts of wisdom and knowledge abundantly, but I think it depends on a lot is, are we willing to follow God’s will, even if it’s not our will?
Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s a lovely way of putting it. And Jacob kind of captures this constant sense of submissiveness, even when we’ve been given sort of gifts to judge when he recasts this moment in which Solomon gives his judgment and interposes in that moment between the case being presented, and him offering this kind of magnificent judgment. He interposes a moment of prayer. And this is what Jacob says, “The king heard these words from their mouths and was dumbfounded at the case of the brazen women. He raised his eyes towards the knower of all hidden things, to learn from him the hidden inner secrets of all wisdom. Overflowing with prayer, he started right off to pray in secret to the secret one, who each day is those who call upon him. ‘Oh God of our father, David, accept my petition and reveal to me that I first asked of you. My Lord, what should I do now that they demand of me to render judgment? For I am but a boy and the matter is very difficult. If I resolve the murder case of these women, Your names will be praised to the furthest corners of the world. But if I’m unable to resolve the case of the brazen women, I should become a joke in the entire nation of Israel.’ Then when the sage ponders what to do, a revelation entered his soul and taught him the truth.” We have this sort of reframing of the story instead of Solomon being given a gift. And then just using that gift for good, we have this sort of constant reliance upon God to be faithful to the gift that is promised this recognition of dependence. And we could perhaps argue that that was what was missing from David. David was somebody who had been given these kinds of great gifts, but didn’t retain this sort of remembrance, this dependence, this reliance upon God each moment that he acted.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s a great place for us to end this week. Have a blessed week y’all.
Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu. Thank you and have a great week.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)